Cumann Seandalaiochta agus Staire Phort Lairge

Monday, November 23, 2020

Nurse Mary Anna Davis By James Doherty


As the Boer War ground on into the summer of 1900, the Illustrated London News disdainfully commented on female volunteers for the nursing service whose ‘capacity for nursing consisted mainly of their goodwill’. The Illustrated News however was happy to report that Ireland in particular had ‘yielded a large company of efficient ladies’ for service in the conflict.[1] The ladies referred to were professional nurses and the paper ran a studio portrait of a Mary Anna Davis of Waterford.

From the Illustrated London News

When Mary Davis became one of a handful of Irish nurses sent to South Africa in 1899, it was reported that she already had six years’ service in various Irish hospitals,[2] and was a member of the Army Nursing Service Reserve.

Whether or not Nurse Davis thought that she might be called to the colours we will never know, but she had joined the Army Nursing Service Reserve in 1894.[3] Early Boer successes in their campaign caused a huge mobilization of British troops and a subsequent demand for professional nurses. Nurse Davis with a Mary Talbot and a Sarah J. Caldwell started their journey to Africa from the North Wall in Dublin on the 29th December 1899.[4]

Nurse Davis’ war file offers little information on her service in Africa other than a departure and a return date from the continent. Awards or citations (which sometimes offer more information) are filed separately; this search was initially frustrated as none were apparently issued. This discrepancy was explained by a typographical error – the recipient’s medal roll had mistakenly been filed under Nurse Anne Mary Davies on the list of Boer War nurses. On the actual record the details match and show that Nurse Davis was awarded the Queen’s South Africa (QSA) Medal and the King’s South Africa (KSA) Medal [5].  

The medal roll shows the place of issue, with Nurse Davis’s QSA being issued at Wynberg General Hospital in 1901.[6] Wynberg General Hospital was a mixture of canvas and huts and split into three sections numbering over a thousand beds. Situated on the Cape, Wynberg was near British Headquarters and was a well-equipped field hospital. The large number of beds would all be needed as large numbers of the wounded, from battles such as Belmont and Magersfontein, were brought in through the course of 1900.

The KSA medal was issued at the general hospital in Kronstad, which was a remote location adjacent to a contested railway line a world away from Wynberg. The general hospital here was established in an old Dutch convent with most of the casualties kept under canvas. In addition to the railway line and field hospital, a Boer displacement camp was set up at the rail depot. One commentator who would later succumb to disease himself said there was nothing at Kronstad ‘except Enteric and Dysentery’.[7] Another visitor to Kronstad, Lucy Deane, a member of the Boer War Concentration Camp Commission, stated that Kronstad:

 wasn’t a ‘place’, merely a railway centre and storage depot for military supplies, with acres of bags of meal etc. covered with sail-cloth’. ‘The rest is wide dusty tracks with spotty camps of various “Corps” of sorts, a tent hospital, tin shanties, a few seedy bungalows and Wesleyan-Church-looking place, a native location built entirely out of tin biscuit boxes flattened out and riveted together, the whole enveloped in a permanent cloud of dust made worse by the incessant galloping to and fro of men on horse-back[8]

Nurse Davis would serve as a member of the Princess Christian’s Army Nursing Reserve in Africa until 1909. This organisation had been disbanded in 1907 and upon her return from Africa applied to join its successor, the Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve (QAIMNS). One of the questions on the application asked had she any experience of dealing with Enteric Fever. Her reply simply stated ‘9 years South Africa’.[9]

On her return to Britain, Nurse Davis’ would have been awarded the 1914 Star for her service from the early days of the conflict, she would have also received the British War Medal and the Victory Medal. Unfortunately her  status as a reservist would see her instantly dismissed from military service after receiving a modest gratuity for her service. The war records show her living with a cousin in Essex who was previously listed as her next of kin. Whether she worked in public nursing during this period is unknown but likely; her military service resumed as a reservist at Aldershot in February 1914.

Nurse Davis was dismissed from service on the 8th of May 1914 but rehired again in a temporary or a reserve function on the 6th of August just a few weeks after the outbreak of WW1 and by the 17th of the same month was stationed at a field hospital in France.[10] Poison gas was introduced onto the Western Front in April 1915 and the Allied Forces responded quickly to this new threat; by September 1915 Nurse Davis was serving at a gas clearing station aiding gas victims.[11]

The last recorded station of Nurse Davis in France was at Villa Tino, which was part of General Hospital No. 24. Villa Tino was a convalescent unit for sick nursing sisters and Nurse Davis was stationed here as nurse here rather than a patient. October 1917 would see Nurse Davis transferred back to Ireland for service in the George V Military Hospital in Dublin.[12]

Once again Nurse Davis’ status as a reservist would impact her personal life and her file contains a brief letter from the head of the QAIMNS stating that she wouldn’t be entitled to a pension but was owed a gratuity. Her service however was extended and she agreed to stay on to 1920 and eventual demobilisation.  

Nurse Davis encountered personal issues on her return to Ireland after she was transferred to Limerick. While in Limerick she penned a letter to the matron of the QAIMNS complaining that she felt bullied in Limerick by ‘Sinn Feiners’. The letter also queried her pensionable status and stated that she was intending to claim disability due to rheumatism. The matron of the QAIMNS  sent Nurse Davis  a polite but non-committal reply to her plea for help. 

Even years after demobilisation, Nurse Davis’ records contain another brush with the bureaucracy of the War Office. Now a civilian, Ms Davis and a Ms Ritchie Thompson travelled to attend the Royal Jubilee in 1935. Upon her return to Dunmore East where she was now living, she contacted the War Office under the impression that she could reclaim travel expenses. Unfortunately this wasn’t the case. This unexpected cost must have been a disappointment to a lady living on limited means.[13]   

After WW1 Nurse Davis had lived with a cousin in England. When this lady became a widow she came to live with Nurse Davis in Dunmore East until her death in 1940. From local knowledge in Dunmore East it would seem that Nurse Davis was always happy to lend her medical skills in the community and was very much to the fore in 1942 when forty-seven survivors from the torpedoed SS Empire Breeze were landed in Dunmore East.

Mary Anna Davis
Image from War Records

However, the bureaucracy of the War office wasn’t finished with the nurse. Her war records contain a flurry of letters from the War Disabled Help Department trying to clarify her status as a military veteran. These letters begin in the winter of 1958 and into the next year. The purpose of these letters is unknown but they become increasingly more urgent in nature. It is likely that the committee was trying to get the elderly Nurse Davis into a military hospital.  The attempt would appear to have been unsuccessful and Nurse Mary Anna Davis died in early 1959.[14]






[1] Illustrated London News, 10 Feb 1900.

[2] Waterford Standard, 30 Dec 1899.

[3] United Kingdom, National Archives, WO/399/2098  (Military file of Nurse Mary Anna Davis). 

[4] Irish Times, 30 December 1899.

[5] National Archives, WO/100/229.

[6] Ibid.

[7] John White Aldred, physician, 1876–1901, J.W. Aldred, Boer War diary, 1900. University of Manchester Library. GB 133 ENG MS 1544.

[8] Papers of Lucy Anne Evelyn Streatfeild (née Deane), factory inspector and social worker, 1893–1919. Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick. GB 152 LAS.

[9] National Archives, WO/399/2098.

[10] National Archives, WO/399/2098.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] The exact date of death is unknown, and unusually is not marked on the headstone.

The Waterford Archaeological and Historical Society, Ireland.
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